Monday, August 24, 2009

Covered Buttons Using Wooden Blanks

Everybody who sews knows how to use those little covered button kits that you get at fabric supply stores like JoAnn's etc. You know, those metal disks with the plastic plungers that you have to hammer down or press with a spool of thread, or hook on those little metal teeth... that never really work out right (maybe 3 out of 5 turn out correctly, at least for me)...
And they cost $3 a batch.
And sometimes your fabric is just too thick and won't go in (wool).
And you (I) end up crushing, losing, messing up a bazillion times?
And forget it if you want a directional button 'cuz your flower is going to tip to the side no matter what...
For historic clothes they work well as a quick fix. But for serious Thread Counters, it's like putting a zipper in a pair of 1720's breeches. Or (gasp!) metal grommets in a 1600's corset! You can't see it, but you know it's there. (BTW, I've been asked to do both of these things).

The solution to this is using wooden blanks covered with fabric, just like it was done back then!

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to make this simple, easy & elegant button.
(Do I sound like DIY or what?)

1. Gather your materials.
Hand sewing thread (cotton, linen, silk) It must be thicker than regular thread as you are going to pull on it a lot.
Wooden blanks (you can get these at any craft supply store, they are really inexpensive. Look for them in the "wood" section).
Fray-check (optional)

2. Lay 2 of the disks side by side on the back of your fabric & create a square around them. This is the size of your fabric disk. Cut as many cloth circles as you need.*
Note: I always cut circles from squares. It helps me keep the size right, and things don't get lopsided... also write down how big your square is in case it's too big/small.
*Do one test first to make sure you've got the size right.
I always cut extras because I know I'll mess up at least 3 times.
If you are cutting silk, or some other fabric that likes to fray, draw your circles on, fray check, let dry, then cut... test it first!

3. Secure your thread about 1/8" in from the edge of the fabric circle and then make a running stitch all the way around. (See the picture above).

4. Place your (sanded & cleaned*) wooden blank in the center of the fabric circle, hold it down with your finger & slowly pull the thread to tighten the gathers around the blank.

note: if your fabric runs, you will have to lightly fray-check the edges before doing this... not all fabrics can handle this amount of stress without reinforcement.
*Don't be perfect. As long as it's not going to cut the fabric, it's OK

5. Push the fabric down flat, making sure it's tight in front and not bunching up in back. It should meet in a nice star-burst pattern.

Note: if it's bunching up in back, the circle is too big. If it doesn't meet, the circle is too small. Re-cut your circles. Sometimes it's 1/16" off.

6. Carefully overcast stitch across the middle, catching each fold & pulling the thread tight. You should end up with something resembling the spokes of a wagon wheel.

Secure your thread. Do not cut!

7. When you know what direction your button holes are going, orient your button correctly and create the shank by passing the thread under some of the fabric & the threads in the center of the button. Do this a minimum of 5 times, 10 is better. Make sure your loops are even and not through the same hole every time. You want a secure shank, not something that will pull out.
Once you have all the loops finished, secure the thread again. DO NOT CUT.

Wrap the thread around the loop to create a single shank. You can tie knots periodically by looping the thread back through itself.
Finally, secure the thread at the other side of the shank, lose it in the fabric & cut.

Your final buttons will look something like these.

To sew them on...
Mark your button placement, secure your thread and stitch in the middle a few times.
Going from the center toward one edge, stitch the slack of the shank down.
Then go toward the other side to make the button sit evenly.
Leave a little bit of play so you have room for the fabric on the buttonhole side.
Secure your thread & cut.

The really nice thing about these buttons is that they are 100% historically correct (1500's - 1950's), long-lasting and very inexpensive. They take a little more time to make than the 'fold& press' covered buttons, but about the same amount of time as the 'hook on the metal teeth' covered buttons.

You can't let these buttons sit in water. They are wood and will swell & crack.
If your garment needs washing, either spot treat, hand wash quickly (5 minutes max), or at the very least don't let it sit in the washing machine over night; dry it right away. On low.
Or you can seal the wood before sewing the buttons together. Thompson's Water Seal is great to dip these things in.

Do a double cloth-covered button for a more plush look.
Add a bit of stuffing on top for a padded button (either before you sew it on, or carefully spread the fibers & stuff it, then re-arrange the fibers to close again.
For a domed look, use a rounded top wood blank.
Hand-embroider the button material prior to cutting for a truly custom look.

Note: This entry is totally DIY/FLN/Martha Stewart-ish. Will someone please slap me the next time I do something like this??? Seriously, it'll be good for me.


Clara Florence said...

Thanks for this. When I went looking a week ago for this tutorial I couldn't find one. Yay! I've already used those highly illegal modern buttons on my jacket, but luckily they aren't big enough anyway and so now I will change them with proper buttons like yours.

I've not seen wooden blanks anywhere locally but if it comes to it, I can always substitute for something else.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...


Thank you, I couldn't find one either, so I made one.
I've switched over to almost all wood blank buttons now.

If you have a saw & a wooden dowel that will work too. It's more work, but isn't it always your time or your money?

You can order them from here:

or here:

Lithia Black said...

I found this tutorial by a link in Clara Florence's blog.
I've been thinking along these lines too, ever since I saw the wood blanks that the sells. Theirs are shaped more like beads with a hole in the middle ,which got me thinking. Why not use wood beads for making more ball shaped buttons. I have to try...
Anyhow thank you for a good tutorial!

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

A way to reinforce the back is to sew a tiny leather disk to it using a whip stitch. Slit the center & pull the thread shank through.

I've never tried this, but one of my customers showed it to me & it's really neat.

Gail Kellogg Hope said...

I've also discovered that it's really easy to cover those 4 hole wooden buttons that you can buy for $0.25 a packet. They are easier to find than wood blanks & come in more sizes.

Kara in Heath said...

Thanks! I'm making a frock coat this week-end and the button tutorial is just what I needed and just in time!